US Navy to Create Chief Learning Officer, Overhaul Sailor Education

A first-year midshipman, or plebe, is splashed with mud while participating in Sea Trials May 15, 2012, at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad Runge

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A first-year midshipman, or plebe, is splashed with mud while participating in Sea Trials May 15, 2012, at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

The creation of a Naval University and other changes are aimed at better shaping sailors and Marines for tomorrow’s wars.

A new Naval University, a new three-star training officer, and a new civilian “chief learning officer” top a list of education reforms intended to better prepare sailors and Marines for future conflicts, U.S. Navy officials said Tuesday.

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer laid out these changes and more in a Feb. 5 memo.

“I am convinced, now more than ever before, that the intellectual development of our naval leaders is the most critical warfighting capability for our national security,” Spencer wrote.

The changes, which include efforts to keep education and training budgets from being raided for other priorities, grew out of a six-month study into naval education. The study was conducted by a five-person team convened by Navy Undersecretary Thomas Modly and Vice Adm. Bill Moran, the vice chief of naval operations, and led by two former four-stars: Mike Mullen, a former Joint Chiefs chairman and chief of naval operations, and John Allen, a former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Retired Vice Adm. Ann Rondeau, Barbara Barrett  and Harlan Ullman were also part of the study team.

“The last remaining advantage we have is going to be our minds,” Modly said Tuesday, echoing themes he laid out in a 2018 oped in Defense One. “We have to make sure we’re getting the best people and also that we’re training them and educating them to be very, very agile and adaptable so that they can deal with uncertainty in a better way. That’s really what this is about.”

Education funding is just a small fraction of the Navy and Marine Corps budget — and yet those programs have often been raided for funding.

“The prioritization, as it should be, over the last several years has been around readiness and education has not been considered a part of that readiness equation at a high enough level,” Modly said. “I think that’s a little short-sighted…because at some point if we don’t educate our people properly, it’s going to have a huge impact on readiness.”

“It’s not a big dollar amount, but the impact can be huge,” he said. “Clearly, this is going to be our competitive advantage into the future. I would predict we’re going to have a more and more difficult time protecting information, intellectual capital [and] certain advantages that we have in technology.”

And education and training could prove important in the potential battles with Russia and China warned about by the year-old National Defense Strategy. Pentagon officials predict that communication between forward-deployed troops and higher headquarters will be jammed.

“In all likelihood, our forces are going to be dealing with very uncertain conditions where they are going to have to operate on their own — they’re going to have to make a lot of decisions,” Modly said. “They have to have a very firm ethical foundation in their education to ensure that they make those decisions properly when the time comes for them to make them.”

Among the report’s recommendations: create a chief learning officer, a senior civilian billet, as well as a three-star-led directorate on the Navy staff, dubbed N7. The chief learning officer will develop an education strategy and plan the Naval University.

The chief learning officer “will have the responsibility for looking at the concept of a Naval University and how we would actually structure that, who would lead it [and] how it would have influence over the budget,” Modly said. “Right now, naval education is very distributed from a budget perspective. So, it ends up getting compromised in the process of budget development. … This is one of the things that I think is going to make a huge difference.”

The N7 will oversee the education budget, taking over those responsibilities from the chief of naval personnel, known as the N1.

“The idea is…give visibility to [education funding] across the enterprise and to the senior leadership so the secretary can say, ‘I want to understand how we’re prioritizing this, how we’re making trade offs in the education space, not across the entire naval enterprise where there are a lot of things that can come in and take bits and pieces away from it,’” Modly said.

The Navy wants each general and flag officers to complete an “in-residence education in strategy,” by 2021.

“The idea is to be able to identify the officers that are the highest potential and ensure that those are the ones that we’re getting the best education that we can possibly give in the naval service and also to integrate the Navy and the Marine Corps in that process,” Modly said.

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